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Russia to give orcas greater protection

According to reports, Viktoria Abramchenko, the Deputy Prime Minister in Russia responsible for environmental affairs, has announced that transient orcas are going to be added to the country’s Red Data Book of endangered species.

In recent years, Russia has allowed a number of wild orcas to be captured for sale to the captivity industry. The whales were shipped to facilities both in Russia and overseas, most notably China.

This lead to in an international outcry in 2018-19 after images and film footage were released of 11 orcas and 90 beluga whales being held in what became known as the infamous “whale jail".

After enormous pressure, the whales were eventually released back into the wild. Early reports indicate that at least some of them have survived, but it will take time to determine whether they will be able to reintegrate into their pods.

Pod of orcas in Far East Russia
A group of orcas off the coast of Kamchatka, Far East Russia. Photo © FEROP

While many countries already prohibit the capture of wild orcas, Russia had become the main source for the growing captivity industry in China. Between 2012-2017, more than 20 transient orcas had been removed from the western Okhotsk Sea.

The effort to get the transients on the Red Data Book stems in part from WDC-funded work through the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP). Initially, FEROP researchers wrote papers published in Russian and English establishing that the orcas,  in Russian waters are made up of two distinct ecotypes. These include the resident fish-eaters and the transient marine-mammal eaters, who are genetically separate populations, meaning that they typically won't mate with one another.

Russian researchers worked together to get the transient orcas into the Red Book within the Kamchatka region. As a result of the outcry over the “whale jail” within Russia, the verbal announcement has been given for them to go into the national Red Book for Russia. This gives them much greater protection from capture and other threats.

"We are waiting for the transient orcas to formally be entered into the Russian Red Book — that's the next step," says WDC Research Fellow Erich Hoyt. "That will give them more protection from being captured again for Chinese or Russian marine zoos and aquariums."

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